Q From Peter Wells, New Zealand: While reading a shipping report dated 1877, I came across the phrase trig and trim that referred to a ship that had arrived at Dunedin from the Old Country in superb condition. Are you able to provide, please, a dissertation on its origins?
A I was nearly stopped dead in my research when I found that the Oxford English Dictionary online doesn’t contain a single example of the phrase; a call to the lexicographers confirms they have few examples of it. But then I found it in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood of 1954: “In her iceberg-white, holily laundered crinoline nightgown, under virtuous polar sheets, in her spruced and scoured dust-defying bedroom in trig and trim Bay View, a house for paying guests ...” and in a very different work, Bill Tilden’s The Art of Lawn Tennis (1920): “Miss Browne is a trig and trim little figure on the court as she glides over its surface. It is no wonder that her public love her.” Marie Corelli included a naval reference in her book of 1886, Vendetta: “And she has been newly rigged and painted, and she is as trig and trim a craft as you can meet with in all the wide blue waters of the Mediterranean.”
All these examples confirm that it means exactly what you suggest: that something is neat and tidy, in good order, immaculate.
The OED gives a good account of trig, which it says is from an old Scandinavian word tryggr, meaning faithful or secure. (Nothing to do with trigger, which is from a Dutch word meaning to pull.) Trig today is mainly found in northern England and Scotland and can mean someone who is nimble, brisk and alert, or a person who is neatly or smartly dressed, or someone or something that is in good physical condition, strong or sound.
The true origin of trig and trim is actually laid out under one sense of trick. This, the OED says, has had two main senses, of being smart, adroit, or clever, or alternatively trim, neat, or handsome. It was in use from about 1530 to 1630 and was very common from around 1550 to 1600. Because its senses are closely similar to those of trig, the OED conjectures that it may have been a southern English version of the word; southerners who heard trig but didn’t know it may have converted it to a form they already knew, a classic example of folk etymology.
The key point is that trick was frequently coupled with trim, in its sense of neat, to make one of those reduplicated phrases that English speakers so like, perhaps after the model of the older spick and span. A very early example appears in Roger Ascham’s 1545 book on archery, Toxophilus, which in modern spelling says: “The same reason I find true in two bows I have, whereof one is quick of cast, trick and trim, both for pleasure and profit.”
What seems to have happened is that some time in the nineteenth century the first word in trick and trim was either changed back to its original form or, more probably, the Scots and northern form of the expression came to the fore for some reason. It may be relevant that the first volume of Robert Chambers’ Cyclopaedia of English Literature, dated 1843 and published in Edinburgh, converts Ascham’s sentence to trig and trim.